down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon
CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — Although every daylight
hour of the five-night rafting trip I took recently down
the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park
offered a steady flow of jaw-dropping vistas, my most
poignant moment came around 2 one morning.
the tent flap, I stumbled into the night and down the 20
sandy yards to the river’s edge to answer nature’s
call. Before long, I realized the only sound I could hear
was the low, gravely grumble of the river that has flowed
there for millions of years.
looked around at the setting. The full moon had already
set beneath the towering cliffs behind me, which cast
their dark shadows over our campsite. But the sheer
redwall limestone face on the opposite bank, an unbroken
expanse maybe a mile long and 1,000 feet high, shimmered
with a filigreed, opalescent glow against the ebony slash
of a starless night sky.
a shiver shot down my spine, and for a brief moment, I was
aware that nature really was calling me.
Canyon National Park receives 4.5 million visitors a year.
Most view the yawning chasm from an observation point on
its south or north rim. Many venture down a few miles on
one of the trails that wind into the canyon, but only
about 100,000 hardy souls hike all the way down to the
Colorado River and spend a night, either camping at
designated sites or bunking at Phantom Ranch at the
than 30,000 each year spend any time on the river itself.
four previous visits to the Grand Canyon, I’d done the
first three options, once taking three days with a friend
to hike the 23 miles from rim to rim.
for all that, I’ve seen only a narrow slice of the 277
miles of canyon included in Grand Canyon National Park and
even less of the river that created it.
when the opportunity to take a raft trip down the river
arose, my friend and I signed up.
adventure started at 6 a.m. one mid-May Saturday when we
met the 22 other people on the Grand Canyon Whitewater
trip who had gathered at a hotel in Flagstaff. From there,
it was a two-hour shuttle ride to Lees Ferry, the nearest
place the river is accessible by vehicle below the Glen
Canyon Dam. That’s also Mile Zero of the Colorado’s
passage through Grand Canyon National Park, even though
the Grand Canyon itself doesn’t begin until mile 62. The
redwall gorge we’d be passing through until then was
Marble Canyon, so named by John Wesley Powell, who in 1869
led the first party down the Colorado.
five rafts were waiting on the wide, sandy shore, along
with the longer, motor-powered pontoon raft that would
carry most of the food and gear for the trip. After an
introduction to Jeff, the trip leader, and the five other
boatmen — Chris, Grant, Ted, John and Tim — who’d be
doing the actual rowing, we got a quick procedure/safety
orientation. Then we stuffed our backpacks into dry bags,
which were loaded on the pontoon raft. Quickly divvying
ourselves four or five to each raft, we were heading
downriver before 10 a.m.
ocher-colored walls started climbing almost immediately,
and within an hour, we were passing under the Navajo
Bridge, arching between the canyon walls some 450 feet
over our heads. It is the last vehicle crossing over the
Colorado for 350 miles.
the ever-deepening canyon, we were effectively off the
grid, with no communication to the outside world, other
than in case of dire emergency. Like every expedition on
the river, we were entirely self-supporting, carrying all
the food, fuel and other supplies necessary for 30 people
for 12 days. While 17 of us planned to leave five days
later at Phantom Ranch, 89 miles downriver, we’d be
replaced by new arrivals, and the expedition would
continue another six days and 150 miles downriver to
Diamond Creek, the first spot where rafts can be trucked
out of the canyon.
other rafting trips I’d been on, where everyone takes a
paddle, these craft were managed by the boatmen, who sat
in the middle plying two long oars, following the current,
deftly negotiating the steady series of named riffles and
rapids. They also provided ongoing commentary about the
river, the geologic formations we passed and points of
interest, even if their tales sometimes stretched the
limits of credulity.
the most part, we sat, enjoyed the scenery, chatted and
took photos, only working hand pumps in the rapids when
the river sloshed into the raft. The bailing is key,
because as we quickly learned, water comes out of the Glen
Canyon Dam at about 50 degrees and hardly warms at all.
This makes the river too cold to swim in and provides the
real prospect of a chilling drench at any rapid. We had to
wear full-body rain suits in addition to life jackets.
water levels, also largely regulated by dam releases, rise
and subside during the day. Despite persistent drought in
the Southwest that has impacted the entire Colorado
drainage, we always had plenty enough to rush our rafts
through the rapids.
average about 18 miles a day on the river, we fell into a
a morning on the rafts, lunch stops often included an
exploration up a side canyon or point of interest. Late
each afternoon, Jeff would pick a suitable camping site on
a sandy strip, each with its own intriguing features.
landing we’d scurry off to find a tent site on the sandy
banks and then head back to the rafts, where we’d form a
hand-to-hand chain to offload the gear, including camping
equipment and dry-bags, kitchen set-up and buckets of
river water that would be used to cook and wash dishes.
we set up our tents, the crew prepared dinner, which was
remarkably tasty. We ate well. After dinner, we’d clean
up and kibitz a while before heading back to our tents as
darkness descended to read by headlamp.
was generally asleep by 10; call for coffee came at 6 the
next morning. After a hot breakfast of eggs, sausage,
French toast or pancakes, we’d strike the tents, reload
the rafts and be on our way by 8.
group of 24 mostly strangers — women and men from across
the country and England and ranging in age from 32 to 71
— got along surprisingly well, especially considering
our close proximity and relatively rough circumstances.
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
chores, for example, like loading and unloading the rafts,
were shared by all with cheerful equanimity. Ditto for
strict observance of the four-dip, washing-up routine
toilet issues proved not a problem. The ecological ethic
of the national park is to urinate in the river (the
solution to pollution is dilution) while in each camp a
box toilet was strategically placed (under the dictate of
"leave no waste behind"), with a system to
provide a degree of privacy and sanitation. Each offering
a contemplative view of the river and canyon walls, they
were five of the most majestic throne rooms I’ve ever
also found it remarkable how pristine the river area was
kept; never once did I spot a trace of trash or other
me it was a journey of humbling awareness and an
introduction into myriad incredible places I could visit
no other way.
many to enumerate here, the short list includes South
Canyon, Vesey’s Paradise, Redwall Cavern, Tiger Wash,
the Unkar Delta, and the azure confluence of the Little
Colorado River, the geological division between Marble
Canyon and Grand Canyon.
were plenty of thrills as our boatmen steered through
dozens of direly named rapids and riffles, never flipping,
getting hung up on a rock, or losing anyone over the side.
of course there was the geologic journey: We witnessed
eons of sedimentary formation, sandstone and limestone
layered in tiers a mile down right to the basement rocks,
the Zoroaster Granite and Vishnu Schist.
only a little worse for five days in the hot, dry, sunny,
sandy environs, I came away with a sense of
accomplishment, but no broken bones or twisted ankles.
That’s not to mention that finish with a flourish, the
8-mile hike up Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim, 4,640
feet above the river. It took me about six hours with a
full pack in nearly 100 degree heat to climb.
bad for an old man. And I lived to tell about it.
I’ll get to go back someday and complete the Colorado
River Rafting Resources: For information about Grand
Canyon National Park river permits go to www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/whitewater-rafting.htm.
Canyon Whitewater, the outfitter of the trip I took,
offers a selection of supported motor and oar-powered
trips on the 225 miles of the Colorado River in Grand
Canyon National Park from Lees Ferry, Ariz. to Diamond
Creek: www.grandcanyonwhitewater.com. For 2014 rates: The
six-day, 89-mile leg from Lees Ferry to the takeout point
at Pipe Creek near Phantom Ranch (with round-trip
transportation to Flagstaff, Ariz.) costs $1,785 per
person; the full 13-day, 240-mile trip from Lees Ferry to
Diamond Creek (with round-trip transportation to
Flagstaff, Ariz.) costs $3,565 per person. Airfare to
Arizona is not included in these costs. These commercial
raft trips are offered from early April to mid-October.
Booking early is necessary to ensure a spot; I booked in
February for a summer trip.
other companies offer river trips through the park, on
oared rafts, motor rafts, dory boats and kayaks. For a
listing, visit www.gcroa.org
Cayon Gigaviews: grandcanyongigaview.tumblr.com. Thomas
Hayden’s immersive experience with a variety of
interactive tools including videos, photos and gigapan
images made during an 18-day expedition on the river.
maps provide both a satellite perspective of the canyon
and a street view experience of the journey down the